From her office window, she watched him shuffle across the street, shoulders hunched, and head down like a kicked dog. Without looking up, he navigated the crowded sidewalk as though being guided by remote control and disappeared through the dark mouth of Benny’s Bar and Grill. “Of course,” she muttered. While he never showed up to their sessions perceptibly intoxicated, there was always a whiff of alcohol about him, even when she couldn’t smell it on his breath, and he always excused himself halfway through to use the bathroom, returning with his sad brown eyes freshly glazed and crunching on cough mints. Claiming he only needed alcohol to “steady his nerves”, she chewed on the end of her pen for fear he might be in Benny’s “steadying his nerves” to kill his estranged wife. Afterall, he had just wished her dead, violently dead, and then reiterated the desire as matter-of-factly as commenting on the weather. Or had he just been manipulating the session once more, trying to read her notes, becoming visibly pleased whenever he said something that warranted another note? Afterall, she was coming to the conclusion he was a card-carrying sociopath with a side of dissociative identity disorder for good measure.
Yes, he was manipulating me, just trying to get a rise, she was reassuring herself when she saw him emerge from Benny’s with a steaming takeout bag in hand which, to her astonishment, he dropped in the lap of a crippled old man slumped against a heating vent next to the subway. The pen fell from her mouth as she pushed her face closer to the glass. Did he just lean over and pat a bill into the breast pocket of the old man’s filthy coat before strolling off, hands clasped behind his back like a contemplative monk in a priory garden? Adding to the effect, a shaft of sunlight escaped a fissure in the low clouds and illuminated his progress down the street.
Turning away from the window, she bent right over until the tips of her black and white hair were dancing on the floor and attacked her scalp with such energetic scratching the stirring in the pants of the insurance broker watching her from his office window across the street stalled at the thought she might have lice. Finally done, her backside remained framed in her window as she breathed heavily into the floor, reigniting the broker’s appreciation, further vexed by how dirty the oscillating orange carpet fibers were up close. It was then she noticed it: a crumpled wad of folded paper under the coffee table.
Smoothing out the papers on her desk – was that a smear of blood on the last page? – she caught her breath. It was his. A printout of a text message thread that must have fallen from his pocket when he was getting up to leave. Little wonder he’d decided against showing it to her. Like a declassified government document, the crazy bastard had actually gone to the trouble of redacting it:
How long has it been going on with ————– Jeff Rosenberg?
What? I told you to stop bothering me.
None of your fucking business is how long.
So you deny it?
I don’t owe you any answers to anything.
So you don’t deny it?
I’m not going to be bullied by you, ———.
I almost crashed a plane because of him.
Honestly Paul, you need serious help. Serious, intensive help.
I’m getting help, Ally.
Not the kind you need if you believe Jeff is responsible for your problems. You almost crashed a plane because you were blind drunk, ———-
Right! Because I saw that disgusting Instagram pic! I always knew there was something going on ———————-. I knew it the moment I set eyes on him at Marjorie North’s party. You were pretty sneaky about hiding your feelings for him, weren’t you? You looked me straight in the eye and told me he “wasn’t your type”. ——————————————————————— Please tell me, when did it start ——————————— I really want to know.
Just tell me when it started. That’s all I want to know and I’ll leave you alone.
How dare you demand anything from me? Did Jeff ever send a video to you of me and him fucking? Fuck you!
I told you that girl in Montreal was just a terrible, horrible mistake. I never cared about her. Not for 1 second. It was 1 night. It wasn’t even me. ——————————————————————————– But, you’re in love with another man, Ally. In LOVE.
You’re the only man I’ve been with in 25 years.
You’re the only woman I’ve ever loved in my whole life. There’s been no one else. No one. Not before, during, or after you. You have to believe me.
I’m not going around in this circle again Paul. Just leave me alone!!!
I can’t bear it, Ally. I can’t. I still love you so much you know.
Let me come home. Please, Ally. I can’t live without you and Mel. I don’t care about this baby you’re having. ————–
———————————————— But it doesn’t matter, I can love the baby too. I swear I can. I’ll never hold it against you if you just get rid of —————- and let me come home. I swear it.
Have you totally lost your mind? I’m happy now. For the first time in so long I’m really, truly happy.
Please don’t say that, Ally. We were happy. Really happy. You can’t deny it. We could be happy again.
You’re going to jail and even if you aren’t, guess what? I don’t need you anymore. Neither does Melanie.
How can you say that to me?! I’m still her ———- father! —
——————————————— I AM MELANIE’S FATHER! You can’t take that away from me. ——————————————————————————————
————————————————— You know what, Paul? I’m going to let you in on a little secret. After Melanie was born, I went and got the test. Negative. I don’t have it. Melanie doesn’t have it. This baby doesn’t have it. The Parkinson’s died with Dorothy, ok? I just didn’t tell you. You know why?
You’re killing me, Ally. ——————————
I don’t care. This is the end. Unless it’s about the divorce, I’m not responding to any more of your messages, you got it?
What divorce? I’ve already given you EVERYTHING!
Good. Then there’s nothing left to discuss.
——————————- Goodbye Paul. I really mean it this time.
Easing out of the passing lane and slowing to almost a crawl, Dylan scowled at the ‘Welcome to Ohio’ sign, lopsided and plastered with dead leaves off the shoulder of the highway, as if the state line marked some kind of point of no return beyond which only bloodshed and arson awaited. “So much to discover, my ass,” he mumbled through the unlit cigarette between his moist lips, his face in the rearview as sullen as the gunmetal gray sky. Injured by his failure to dissuade her from abandoning the trip altogether, Phoebe had salted the wound not only by bulldozing his own adamant refusal to come, but by coercing him into chauffeuring us all the way there on top of it.
“You’re shitting me! Why me?!” he had cried late one night in Milkwood’s, thumping his chest with the side of a closed fist, the firelight playing across his strained features lending them an additional air of hellish torment.
“I’m too much of a basket case to drive and Paul– ”
“You’d be less of a basket case if you didn’t go and forgot all about this!”
“And Paul,” said Phoebe, pausing to carve up Dylan’s babyface with dagger eyes, presumably because his emphasis on “less” implied her basketcasedness was not a temporary condition caused by the impending trip, rather an inherent one aggravated by it. “Paul can’t drive because his license is suspended.”
“Revoked to be precise,” I pointlessly clarified. “Anything with an engine could become a turbocharged killing machine in my hands. I’m surprised they didn’t bar me from those stupid electric kick scooters. Or confiscate my electric razor. I– ”
“I can drive,” cut in Dani over her shoulder, pouring fresh drinks behind the bar and casting Dylan a long hopeful look he was too agitated to notice.
“Over my dead body,” came a gruff voice as Dani’s father, exercising an uncanny knack for stealth, was suddenly standing among us as if he’d just sprouted from the floor. A retired hedge fund manager, Hal Topper had hair like spun silver and polished, tawny skin that somehow appeared expensive and impermeable to most anything, including bullets. His reputation for ruthlessness had exceeded even Wall Street’s cutthroat standards and, when he fixed you in his combative eyes, you felt more like a potential target than merely the object of his attention. Now his arctic gaze lingered over each of us one-by-one until settling upon Dylan, who visibly squirmed under it – as well he may since Hal Topper seemed a man more pained and bewildered than most upon having finally woken to his daughter’s sexual maturity – leaving little doubt that any “dead body” was scarcely going to be his own.
“Oh, just stop it Daddy,” snapped Dani, hands balled on her hips. “I’m eighteen now. If I want to go with my friends, I’ll go. And there’s nothing, NOTHING, you can do about it!” With that, she thrust out her generously endowed chest so much as to add “and I’ll be taking these babies with me.” As I watched the hardened old tycoon silently work his mouth, chewing on his daughter’s words like the bleeding Porterhouse he typically ordered from the kitchens, I envied his torment and refreshed my own with ideas of Jeff Rosenberg attempting to exercise parental authority over Melanie. Were those efforts being met with the same lippy resistance Dani was now perfectly imitating? Or was Melanie merrily complying just to spite me?
“You know, I’m guessing there’s SOMETHING he can do about it,” said Dylan staring at Milkwood’s front door which was still slowly swinging closed on its unimpressed hinges after Hal Topper had nearly torn it off during his departure.
“He’s probably just gone to fetch it,” I concurred as Dylan blanched.
But he never returned and now here we all were, me and Phoebe relegated to the backseat in our uselessness, the kids up front with Dylan at the wheel, on the road to Lucasville and the darkness that resided there. While the rest of us quietly brooded, Dani nodded her head side-to-side to whatever was pumping through her headphones, the only thing awaiting her at journey’s end the cheerful prospect of getting laid. Up ahead a ‘HELL IS REAL’ billboard, the ‘H’ in a red flame font, arose from a field of dead grass and dirty slush so desolate it corroborated the sign’s thesis.
“There’s something to discover, Dylan,” I said in the throes of powerful déjà vu, my voice a tinny reverberation from a parallel universe.
“Ain’t that the truth.”
“Don’t encourage him,” said Phoebe. “He’s enough of a pill as it is.”
Just as Dylan opened his mouth to meet the allegation a black cloud materialized on the other side of the median and, swooping downwards in a funneling murmuration pattern, broke across the windscreen with the same thunderous sound as entering a drive through car wash, and was gone, much of Dylan’s view now compromised by the splattered remains of liquefied bugs. “Jesus H. Christ!” he hollered, squinting and fumbling for the wiper. “What the fuck was THAT?!”
“Locusts maybe, if the sign back there is to be believed,” I offered to a dark look from Phoebe.
“Creeeee-py,” said Dani, yanking out a headphone and leaning forward to inspect the gunk smearing, or refusing to budge at all, under the insistent sweep of the wipers. “It’s like a giant sneezed on our car.”
“Or ejaculated,” I was about to say when another billboard, which my accelerating déjà vu predicted, came into view stark against the hostile sky:
WITH GOD, ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE
Craning my neck to watch as it passed by, I was 100% certain I had been down this road before and that there was nothing but hurt, agony, and pain at the end of it.
“I spy with my little eye something that begins with ‘B’. Outside.”
“Barn!” piped Melanie instantly from the backseat, pointing at a buckling old wooden structure set back from the highway behind a thin screen of balding poplars. A jumble of rusted farm machinery strewn out front and empty black spaces where windows used to be, it looked more like a place where teenage hitchhikers got taken to be murdered.
“Definitely not. And that’s a murder venue. Begins with ‘M’, just like your name.”
“Paul,” said Ally with an elbow to the ribs which would have been delivered with significantly more force had I not been driving.
“Nope. I’ll give you a clue though. It’s always right in front of us.”
Melanie scrunched up her face while digesting this and said, “How’s that possible?”
“Yeah, how?” demanded Ally.
“Only one clue! That’s the rule.”
As time passed, the Lexus became so full of female exasperation it probably looked like it was rocking back-and-forth to the cars behind. “Aw, I give up,” whined Melanie at last. “What is it?”
“Yeah, what?!” cried Ally.
“There,” I said pointing at the mucusy splotch glued to the windscreen in the cleavage below the rearview where the wipers didn’t reach. “Bug juice.” Waving away the symphony of groans and protests like it was smoke in my face, I said above the clamor, “It’s on the outside of the car and it’s always in front of us. Fair and square. And you would’ve gotten credit for just ‘bug’ so take it like men, ladies.”
“Honestly, Paul, how did you get to be so darn sneaky?”
“Yeah, honestly Daddy!”
I flicked at the glass beneath the splotch as if I could somehow dislodge the shard of wing protruding from it that way and, an honest answer to Ally’s question eluding me, said, “Mel’s my inspiration. Duh!”
Melanie squealed in that almost hyperventilating delight it seemed only I could provoke, an ability Ally envied and adored in equal measure and, leaning over to bite down on my shoulder with those big, piano key teeth of hers, she channeled the spirit of my mother and said, “You are a terrible, terrible man, Paul Manson.”
An aircraft needs smooth or ‘laminar’ flow – the uninterrupted flow of air over the wings – to maintain stable flight. When splattered bugs accumulate on wings during takeoff and landing, the airflow trips from laminar to turbulent, causing a reduction in lift and increase in drag. Because it can sap an aircraft’s fuel efficiency by as much as 6%, eviscerated bug residue causing drag has been a long-standing challenge for the aviation community. The problem is a bug doesn’t know it has been catastrophically destroyed when it collides with an aircraft at 150 MPH. Despite its exoskeleton rupturing and shucking off instantaneously, the bug’s survival mechanism still kicks in and activates chemical changes in the blood, making it thicker and stickier, as if healing any other injury. It’s this bug blood, or hemolymph, that clings to wings and windshields so tenaciously it resists all manner of removal.
“But at least NASA is studying lotus leaves and experimenting with different wing coatings on those planet-killers you fly for a living,” concluded Melanie, folding her arms under breasts buoyant enough to hold their own without the additional support (including a bra, apparently, since nothing was blunting the warheads jutting out in relief through her khaki Che Guevara T-shirt) and, already the same dimensions as Ally’s, likely still had room to run.
“Well? What do you think about that?” prompted Melanie, interrupting my indecision on whether I was going straight to hell for assessing my own daughter’s burgeoning chest or some lesser purgatory for having only just noticed it now.
Catching myself short of blurting “magnificent”, I artificially coughed to buy a moment to recall what she had been talking about. “It reminds me of playing Eye Spy on the road to Martha’s Vineyard,” I said, surprising even myself at the increasing ease with which plausible lies came to me. This one was wasted on Melanie though. The blankness in her face indicated either a true absence of memory or, more likely, a stony denial of any deflection away from how the weight of insect carcasses accumulating on my wings contributes even further to my carbon footprint. Best not mention the New Orleans – JFK run Gary and I had just made, our ascent over the steaming bayous having blackened our wings so thoroughly we might have brought half the population of Louisiana’s skies back with us, including of the avian variety since a bird strike had left the nose of our plane looking as though it had been pelted with snowballs made of frozen blood. Or indeed the image that now leapt to mind of Melanie, who had recently left Ally incandescent after dying her hair green, working the airport as a squeegee punk until the eggheads at NASA perfected their magic formula.
“Bug Juice,” I said. “I burned you and mom with that one when you were still cute and little, remember?” And now I was back in the Lexus on that winding route through Massachusetts, watching the splotch’s shattered black wing quivering in the turbulence outside, a greater remnant of its owner than what had been left of Sarah Calloway it now occurred to me. Had Sarah also not known that she had been catastrophically destroyed? Had her blood become more adhesive, bonding to whatever bit of imploding skyscraper it could find to attach itself to? As if healing any other injury or so as not to be forgotten? So as to be found?
“What do you mean STILL cute?” said Melanie tremulously, wide eyes submerged in pools of rising water, her womanly self-assuredness dissolving before me. I took her face in my hands like I did when she was a child and began apologizing, her lower lip quivering from the sudden turbulence inside, from those raw and vulnerable emotions that would soon harden, as surely as the blood of the catastrophically destroyed, under the unapologetic lash of adulthood.
I closed Harold’s phone and, as a watery dusk rinsed the failing light from the windows, stared at my shadowy reflection in its black mirror. How could this thin slab of glass and aluminum cradled in my palm contain such a vast, sprawling trove of raw biographical data? How did it correlate to the baggie of ashes at my side, which looked more like party powder than the earthly remains of a human being? “His whole life’s in there,” Lucy had said, and she wasn’t kidding. If you were to set about going through all of Harold’s photos and videos, text and email threads, document files, music, social media feeds, it would take entire days, if not weeks, to complete the task. I had been at it all afternoon, so engrossed I hadn’t noticed the fire dying out or the damp autumn chill creeping through the cabin in its absence, and had barely scratched the surface.
Lucy’s account of Harold’s life in the decades since my “alien abduction”, as she referred to my traceless flight from Hillsborough county, had been perfunctory. His dreams of a basketball scholarship had come to naught, crushed less by insufficient height, as it turned out, than by insufficient God-given talent no amount of hard work and dedication could overcome. “He just didn’t realize how small of a pond West Hillsborough High was to be a big fish in,” Lucy had clucked, shaking her head. Crestfallen under the harsh glare of that reality but undeterred in his quest for a college education, Harold enlisted. This time his hard work and dedication were rewarded by deployment to Iraq where, after the Humvee he was traveling in drove over an IED, enough of his manhood was blown off to leave him impotent and in chronic pain. Honorably discharged, he returned stateside with a Purple Heart and VA disability compensation that, while a pittance of what he needed to attend college, was plenty to stoke a growing addiction to any painkilling narcotics he could get his hands on including, in the end, heroin. Unable to hold down jobs more elegant than the pumping gas and stacking shelves variety, he spent the years that followed in and out of rehab until finally the opioid epidemic swept him away on a whirlwind tour of self-destruction which featured a couple of near fatal fentanyl overdoses and culminated in his unsuccessful interview with the front of my train.
“And that was that,” said Lucy briskly, brushing the crumbs of the story from her hands and topping up my Jack. For a woman whose mother and brother had just had their cheerless lives gruesomely curtailed, and worsening rheumatoid arthritis her own mortal coil, she struck me as remarkably chipper and well carbonated. Through it all, she hadn’t so much as skipped a day of work clerking at the DMV.
“Jesus, God, and Fuck,” I said, aghast on her behalf.
That reaction may have prompted Lucy to loan me the phone as I was preparing to leave. “It’s not all bad,” she had said, handing it to me in the doorway and stroking my cheek with the back of her leathery hand. “You’ll see.”
And it wasn’t. Not so bad at all. A band of loyal friends, mostly old army buddies. His own army of girlfriends who, unphased by either his unserviceable gear or their knowledge of each other, were smitten by a silky tongue as suited to the art of cunnilingus as it was to the racy love poetry that accompanied it. A volunteer counseling post in the same burnt and broken minds wing of the same VA hospital where my father had been treated, an avalanche of poignant messages and photos bearing witness to the success of his interventions. A volunteer basketball coach at West Hillsborough High, one of his charges now playing point guard at Penn State on a full scholarship. A self-taught jazz pianist, good enough to play for free beers in the local bars. Fluent in Spanish. All in all, for a man whose life had been so successively touched by disappointment and tragedy, it seemed far more accomplished than mine had ever approached. No wonder a small cavalcade of mourners was already scheduled to come and pay their respects to The Warehouse, damn him.
Still, it seemed indecent, almost obscene, to rummage around in a man’s life like this and I told Lucy as much when she was pushing the phone on me. “What about his privacy?” I said, a cold finger dragging itself down my spine at the thought of the Julianne Robbins sex tape still lurking on my own phone. Of the brutal exchanges between me and Ally it had spawned. “His secrets?”
“He’s dead, Paul. D-E-A-D. Dead. Including his feelings. He doesn’t care about his privacy anymore. Besides, if he’s going to make my birthday his passcode, what does he expect?”
“Now look who’s talking like he’s still alive and not D-E-A-D.”
Sitting in the near total darkness of the cabin considering Harold’s dead feelings and moreover whether his blood had cemented to the lonesome tracks on the outskirts of town in keeping with the catastrophically destroyed, I nearly leapt out of my skin when the phone lit up and began blasting a Jimi Hendrix ringtone. The jolt caused the pulsing thing to flip from the end of my fingertips like a distraught fish and, landing face down on the floor halfway to the fireplace, it continued singing into its own bed of blue light. It had been unsettling enough earlier when notification banners, oblivious to Harold’s demise, appeared at the top of the display – “Hey, sugar! Why aren’t you calling me? Call me!” – before vanishing back into the internet. But now I sat glued to the sofa strangling my bottle of Jack with both hands. I had caught a glimpse of the caller ID:
And a very persistent unknown caller it was since Jimi Hendrix got halfway through All Along the Watchtower before the phone, edging across the floor under the vibration, finally went dark and silent.
To be continued…
*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available at: http://bit.ly/2u7rqcL
© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Second Intermission & Chapter 14), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.